Story at a glance
- More than 1,600 individual book titles have been banned from school classrooms or libraries over the past year, according to PEN America, a nonprofit that advocates for freedom of expression.
- While book bans are nothing new in the United States, some authors worry about the most recent wave of censorship.
- Authors of banned books say the efforts to contest their books have never been more organized before.
Book bans are nothing new in the United States but authors of some of the country’s most contested books worry about the newest push to censor what literature children have access to in schools.
“I’m an old pro at this,” said Sherman Alexie, author of the young adult novel “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.” The novel tells the story of Arnold Spirit Jr., a 14-year-old aspiring cartoonist who lives on the Spokane Indian Reservation while attending an all-white high school.
The book has faced pushback since it was published in 2007 and has been contested for its use of profanity, racist language — including the N-word — and references to sexual acts. Over the past 15 years, the novel has earned a spot on the American Library Association’s banned books list six times.
The novel is currently banned in 16 different school districts across a handful of states including Florida, Georgia, Iowa and Kansas, according to PEN America’s Index of School Book Bans.
But this year’s efforts to ban Sherman’s work were different.
One example of how pushback against Alexie’s National Book Award-winning work has changed shape is how the novel was contested in Nebraska earlier this year.
Several members of a group called the Protect Nebraska Children Coalition showed up to a Wauneta-Pallisade Public Schools board meeting in January demanding that a number of books be removed from elementary and high school libraries in part due to sexual content. “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” happened to be one of those books on the list.
“The difference this time is it’s never been this organized. It was usually one or two parents in one school district,” Alexie said. “But this organizational effort has far more power and influence.”
The group’s mission is to “protect the health and innocence of children and the fundamental rights of parents to direct the education, healthcare and upbringing of their children,” according to the Protect Nebraska Children Coalition Facebook page.
The link to the group’s website listed on the Facebook page directs users to a page outlining the dangers of comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) and features a step-by-step guide to remove CSE from schools by using a tactic called the “Tsunami Strategy.”
There are four main parts to the “Tsunami Strategy,” according to the site. The first is to decide on a long-term policy goal, the second is to figure out “the oppositions” policy goals, followed by a short-term decision on what to address in the next school board public meeting and the last step is to “craft 30 statements all asking for the same action to be taken.”
Some groups pushing for the removal or investigation of certain books for their content argue that they are doing so for the safety of children. But some like Ellen Hopkins, who is the most frequently banned author in the United States, according to PEN America, don’t believe that concern is real.
“The current attacks are impersonal. No real concern for the welfare of the kids they claim to worry about,” said Hopkins.
Hopkins added that she believes the ultimate goal of many pushing for these book bans is to “dismantle public education and drive teachers away from teaching.”
According to PEN America, 14 individual books by Hopkins have been contested or outright banned in schools over the past year. The title with the most bans is the novel “Crank,” a story about addiction inspired by Hopkins’ daughter who went from being a straight-A student to battling a crystal meth addiction during her teen years.
Hopkins speculates that some parents contesting work like “Crank” believe that if children read about drug use it might make them want to try illicit substances. But thinking that children are only learning about certain parts of life through books is naïve, she said.
“I don’t know how they consider they wouldn’t know about it considering most of them have internet access,” Hopkins said. “Books are a safer space…if a kid has his nose in a book he’s not actually being courted by somebody or actually watching real people have sex.”
Hopkins told Changing America that the purpose of the book is to help give insight into some of the problems that young people face every day and to help them make better choices. Taking that information away only increases the odds children will make poor choices if placed in similar situations, Hopkins argued.
Hopkins said that she has even reached out to several groups contesting her books and asked to have a conversation and explain her motivation for writing on the topics that she does but none have taken her up on the offer.
“The hysterics don’t want that understanding or difficult conversations,” Hopkins said. “They want attention and get it through rehearsed talking points.”
When faced with an adult concerned about the content of her books, author Ashley Hope Perez will ask if their child has a cell phone or goes to the public library to use computers.
“Even if they don’t have a cell phone, do they play on a soccer team? Do they ride the bus? Are they ever in the locker room?… there is always access to content,” Perez said. “Why are we removing access to high quality content to frame difficult conversations and leaving kids with nothing but what they find on the internet?”
What is concerning about the newest wave of book bans is using outrage over the contents of the books as a sort of “proxy war” against non-dominate identities like being queer or non-white, according to Perez.
Perez said that she has looked at Facebook pages of groups that have contested her young adult novel “Out of Darkness” and has been shocked to see members tell others to “not talk about race” or bring up homosexuality when trying to push for a ban and instead “just talk about sex and curse words.”
To her, comments like that reveal that targeting specific themes in books is just a pretext for targeting specific books that promote the inclusion of people of different races and sexual identities.
“These groups know they cannot send parents to school board meetings to say I don’t want queer kids in my kid’s school. I don’t want them sitting next to a Black kid,” said Perez. “They can’t say those things in 2022 but they can hold up a copy of ‘Out of Darkness’ with the Black and Mexican main characters on the front and say this is filth.”